Documents of 20th-century Latin American and Latino Art Home


Document first page thumbnail

One of the closing chapters of the multi-volume publication Historia extensa de Colombia, this text by Luis Alberto Acuña reconstructs the history of Colombian sculpture. In it, Acuña discusses the work of two artists—Édgar Negret and Rodrigo Arenas Betancur—whom he considers the most outstanding figures working in that medium in the sixties. Acuña finds Arenas Betancur’s figurative work of interest due to its nationalist bent and concern with social issues. The author refers to Arenas Betancur’s general dispute with abstraction and explains why that artist chose to pursue figurative work. He also cites a text where critic Eugenio Barney Cabrera describes his experience before Arenas Betancur’s work Prometeo [Prometheus]. The final pages of the chapter analyze Negret’s work. Acuña discusses Negret’s figurative origins as well as his later tendency towards abstraction and avant-garde rejection of tradition.


From 1965 to 1968, the Academia Colombiana de Historia published the Historia extensa de Colombia, a text that set out to encompass Colombian history in its entirety from a specialized perspective. Book III of volume XX, which deals with sculpture, was written by Luis Alberto Acuña (1904–1984), a widely acclaimed artist and writer. Entitled “Tendencias contemporáneas,” this chapter, which immediately precedes the volume’s final chapter, presents a number of interesting theoretical problems. 


First, Acuña sets out to analyze the moment in which he himself is writing, which from the outset entails a problem of historical distance. While the author admits he does not have the distance necessary to judge the present, he feels that he must conclude his broad overview, which begins with pre-Columbian sculpture, with a brief look at the present. He chooses Negret and Arenas Betancur as emblematic figures of the state of Colombian sculpture in the late sixties. 


The second major problem that, due to the choice of those two artists, Acuña must address is the relationship between figuration and abstraction. Arenas Betancur is a figurative artist and Negret an abstract one and, in Acuña’s view, that means they have different relationships with immediate reality: Arenas Betancur is more concerned with the Colombian situation and Negret with strictly visual problems. 


Acuña understands Negret’s creativity and adherence to the avant-garde in historical terms. He concludes that Negret adheres to a strange brand of the avant-garde since there is no “tradition” against which to react. Indeed, this observation indicates a basic theoretical problem when it comes to analyzing the avant-garde in Latin America, which unlike its European counterpart, did not entail reacting to a tradition; in the early 20th century, no such tradition existed in South America.  


This chapter by Acuña, then, not only provides an overview of Colombian sculpture in the late sixties, but also addresses essential critical and historiographical problems.

Camilo Sarmiento Jaramillo
Universidad de los Andes, Bogota, Colombia
Courtesy of Yolanda Guerra, Bogotá, Colombia